by Evelyne Vivies
Monet’s Cafe, the small but magical bistro-style restaurant of Exeter, offers refinement, culture, and art inspired by the greatest European cities. Its proprietor, sweet-natured Jen Davis, has the eye of an artist, the managerial grace of a symphony conductor, and the humility to realize how blessed she is. It’s no wonder we love to go there again and again.
Jen grew up in California, but her parents had lived in Belgium and France where the family often travelled to. She fell in love with the sprawling cafes in the bigger European cities of Paris and Bruxelles. “I wanted the cafe’s experience to feel like that. I wanted people to feel like they’re in a warm cafe near the Louvre. Those cafes looked so warm, so welcoming, and so inviting. I wanted to create that feeling.”
She had already made a name for herself when she first poured her creativity into Wildflower Cafe two decade earlier. No one in Exeter was surprised, when she set her sights on the vacant office space across the street from Wildflower’s, that it would become a smash hit. “I came in and the ideas just started rolling. My original thought was that I would make it a bakery for Wildflower. But then somewhere along the way I decided to put a little wine bar in the front.” Then in 2005, she sold Wildflower to dedicate herself to the little wine bar, turning it into a full-blown restaurant with a French chef.
At first glance, the glamorous, European-style decor tells you to expect a delicious slice of Paris. “The decor really had a mind of its own,” explains Jen. “We had amazing artisans that worked together on the project. The first thing we did was paint the ceiling copper and that set the tone for the whole room.” Local artist Beth Hart painted the mural around the top. “All I had asked her for was a sepia countryside and she painted everything by hand with a book in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. Seriously, it magically came together.”
Even the name Monet sprang from her love of her favorite French Impressionist artist Claude Monet. “The name came to me sitting at Wildflower one evening. I was thinking that he also loved to entertain in his home in France, and so it really captures the right sort of essence of thinking of food as art. Food really is an artform.”
Chef Jesus Belman started at Monet’s as a dishwasher and became their sous-chef. “Eventually he ventured out to open his own business and worked at several other restaurants until he really had an understanding that he is an artist,” says Jen. “Then he came back to us and said. ‘I am ready to be the chef’. I am so grateful because he is so talented, consistent, and creates such a positive environment that everything goes right. He is not ony dedicated to hard work, but he also makes sure that he puts the artfulness into the food.”
If you have an appetite, Chef Jesus will perfectly execute every time Monet’s standard Eggplant Napoleon, Monte Carlo Pasta, or Lobster Ravioli. “His specials are incredible,” says Jen. “On weekends we do a three-course dinner. Last weekend’s the Chef Special included Star Anis Duck Breast.”
And because Monet’s notion of Europe’s culinary borders is admirably inclusive, the menu also includes burgers. “We started doing burgers when I came back, and they’ve been really popular,” says Jesus. What the menu describes as the Bacon Brie Burger emerges from the kitchen as a master class of beef, bacon, carmelized onion with soy sauce, and topped with brie. A panel of hambuger experts would rise to their feet and clap their hands in appreciation of this wonder burger. “People really love that hamburger,” says Jesus. “It’s something that’s a little bit more American but still has that Frenchness.”
All of their deserts are homemade and definitely worthy of the calories. “We always suggest people have desert and most people do. We think that it completes the whole dinning experience.” Their famous Lavender Cheesake is fresh, flavorful, and absolutely decadent. Be sure to order yours early. They go fast.
Monet’s immense wine selection line the walls of its quaint back room. Wine from Paso Robles, Napa, Oregon, Argentina, and, of course, France are on hand. “We try to have a nice selection in all price ranges,” says Jen. “If you just want a $7 glass of wine, wonderful. If you want an expensive bottle, we have that, too. People can also bring in their own wine. I only ask that they let me try it, too.” She says with a twinkle in her eyes.
Each month, Monet’s Wine Club features a different winery that comes out to pair their wines with a four-course dinner. “The event also includes a choice of your favorite bottle to take home. The next Wine Club will be on July 8, and will feature Groundwork’s Vineyard from Tin City in Paso Robles.
Another exciting wine event at Monet’s is the Pigment and Muse Paint Night. If painting while enjoying a bottle of wine isn’t appealing enough, imagine also having your artwork appear on a wine label. This is the chance to be part of a new wine label of Monet’s house wine, Old Fig. “You can drink wine, be with your friends, and paint something fabulous with artist Amy Figueroa,” explains Jen. Two wine bottles are already adorned with artwork stemming from these paint nights. The Abstract design of the Petite Sirah, and the Lavender Fields of the Chardonay. This fun, artistic, wine-laden night happens twice a year. The next one will be on July 23.
Whether on a first date or dining among friends, there is nothing like music to make everything festive and comfortable. Live music envelops the party in its own musical cocoon and completes the experience by having all five senses engaged. It makes for a magical night. That is why, for years, from Wednesday through Saturday nights, regular and up-and-coming musicians grace Monet’s dining hall.
“A meal here is more of a dining experience,” explains Jen. “What people should expect is a really warm welcome and a complete experience that involves friendship, music, atmosphere, and great food. And in some ways a truly French environment where you’re here to enjoy your friends, perhaps meet your neighbors, and really have a full evening where you feel like something special happens. That’s our intention.”
Indeed, Monet’s stands out among the flock of restaurants whose owners don’t take the time to greet their guests. “I think that people want a personal connection, so I think it’s really important to say hello to your guests because I really value them. We feel really blessed because we get really busy, and we try to make sure that we’ve got employees who are super conscientious of creating a wonderful experience. So if I can’t get to a table, I hope that the girls have done a great job. It’s also about creating a work environment that is enjoyable for all of us working as much as it is for the customers, and I think that shows. When everybody is having a great time you can feel the energy in the room.”
The magic of Monet’s Cafe. The exquisite meal, great wine, and live music you will experience within its walls bustling with luxurious fun all stem from the heart of one woman who excels in her artwork. The art of appreciation for people who surround her.
As Claude Monet puts it, “Techniques vary, art stays the same; it is the transposition of nature at once forceful and sensitive.”
12 S. E Street
Exeter, CA 93221
All photographs by Roger Gong.